Reading Marcel Proust and Dawn Powell


“I am very fond of my novel, hope other people are.” — from The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965


A while back I was on the train when we came to a stop at a station. There was another train waiting on the adjacent track. The lights from the car glowed in the grey chill of the wintry morning. Inside, commuters slept, read the paper or their books, typed on their laptops, scrolled through their mobiles, and so on. In our car, every head swivelled to gaze at the people in the other train. Our eyes opened, we looked up from our newspapers and books, fingers temporarily suspended over our laptop keyboards and mobiles, and so on.

I’ve picked up Proust again recently. “Finally!” I hear some of you say, while others murmur “Who cares?” I’m on page five hundred of Within a Budding Grove. That’s about two hundred pages from the end of the second book in the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. In this book, the narrator spends more time looking outward than he did in Swann’s Way. His observations of the people around him are more objective and less focused on his internal impressions and moods.

As always with Proust, our enjoyment of the book is not with the plot but with his ability to observe and record in precise detail, well, everything. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the aristocratic households of Paris at the turn of the last century? It’s here.

In Within a Budding Grove we meet a few new characters. One is the Baron de Charlus, the uncle of a friend of the narrator. Several pages are devoted to a description of M. de Charlus, including his somewhat intense and inscrutable gaze:

No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus’s face would have been similar to the faces of many good-looking men. . . . however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to block, and through which, according to one’s position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion

That’s a nice example of Proustian syntax, dissecting with a loving caress the inner and outer essence of his characters, like Michelangelo closing his eyes and stroking the marble before applying the chisel.

Sometimes he’s a little more succinct, to good comic effect. In an aside on a minor character, he observes, “This man’s wife, incidentally, had married him against everyone’s wishes and advice because he was a ‘charming creature.’ He had, what may be sufficient to constitute a rare and delicate whole, a fair, silky beard, good features, a nasal voice, bad breath, and a glass eye.”

Proust also enjoys describing the dynamics of Parisian society, and all the little things  people do to secure their reputation in the eyes of others. Those like Odette, without the advantages of an aristocratic family name, have to find ways to make sure everyone knows they’re important:

The Swanns shared this failing of people who are not much sought after; a visit, an invitation, a mere friendly word from anyone at all prominent was for them an event to which they felt the need to give full publicity. . . . The Swanns were incapable even of keeping to themselves the complimentary letters and telegrams received by Odette. They spoke of them to their friends, passed them from hand to hand. Thus the Swanns’ drawing-room was reminiscent of a seaside hotel where telegrams are posted up on a board.

Alongside In Search of Lost Time, I’m rereading The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965. Powell was the author of fifteen novels, in addition to several plays and short stories. She battled financial woes and indifference to her work her entire life, despite high regard from a handful of authors including Ernest Hemingway, who described her as “his favorite living writer.” It’s difficult to get any of her books now. I discovered the diaries through an article in The New Yorker. Edited by Tim Page, The Diaries of Dawn Powell is over four hundred pages of notes, descriptions and anecdotes about her life and work. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the artistic circles of New York City in the thirties, forties and fifties? It’s here.

Dawn Powell’s diary is so writerly one wonders how spontaneous it was (although Tim Page admits to “tightening” her prose occasionally.) It’s more a writer’s notebook than a personal confessional. Take this description of a friend of novelist John Dos Passos, recorded in December 1935:

He is a faintly funereal wag, smelling of old ladies and moth balls, and Victorian parlors, expecting cancer with a smile, welcoming decent calamity with great good nature so long as it’s something slow and fatal and respectable rather than garish and dramatic. He, like so many other gifted young men about town, slipped somehow into one of Henry James’ lesser mantles, assuming with authority the role of Dean of Letters, without going to the bother of writing. This slight lapse in preparation passes unnoticed now, when others of his own generation have stopped writing anyway, so no one can be sure which witty critic once wrote a fine novel, a successful play or poem, and which never did anything but show promise.

The Diaries is filled with anecdotes that showcase Powell’s humour and ear for dialogue, such as her entry for February 23, 1933:

To Coby’s. Alec Brook, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer and Betty Spencer were there—all slightly lit and anxious to tell dirty stories but no one could remember any. “The best one,” stuttered Niles, “is the one—well, I’d better not tell it—it’s pretty bad—ladies would get insulted—anyway there’s a lot of French in it and so on—I really forget. It isn’t so funny, anyways, it’s the way it’s told and in the end the fellow says ‘Someday you’ll go to far.’ Ha ha.” Coby knew one in Cockney only he’d forgotten the end and besides he couldn’t speak Cockney.

In another entry Powell describes a party where Dr. Cook, “a very viril head-hunting gent,” kisses a beautiful student out of the blue, and then goes home. The student proceeds to get drunk and pass out. Apparently this wasn’t the first time Dr. Cook insensitively toyed with the affections of a student:

Mrs. Sweeney said the distinguished Dr.’s other student had passed out before. He brought one to her house, then she began getting pea green and Mrs. S. saw her out where she said, swaying into the elevator, “I’ve forgotten my notebook.” Then, this being produced, she shyly said, sliding to the floor, “I had a pencil, too.” Then she passed warily away.

That “shyly” and “warily” are perfect. In Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay on Dawn Powell in the New York Review of Books he quotes a passage from her novel She Walks in Beauty, in which a character offers a back-handed compliment to another “pleasantly.”  “The adverb ‘pleasantly’ helps make the joke,” writes Vidal, “a point of contention between no-adverbs Graham Greene and myself. I look to the adverb for surprise. Greene thinks that the verb should do all the work.”

Reading Proust and Dawn Powell at the same time, I’m struck by the similarities despite the differences in time and place. Both writers were interested in social dynamics and the “tells” which thwart our attempts to mask our intentions. Both were masters of observation — you can imagine each racing home from a party to scribble the details of everything that happened. And both used language superbly to transform our endless fascination with ourselves into art.

We pick up a book and turn from the swirl of our own minds, filled with desires, dreams, insecurities, the pain of memory, and so on, to read about other times, other lives, where people struggle with their desires, dreams and insecurities, and the pain of memory. And so on.



This Week in Proust: page 436

“…it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar, and what we come to discover about our own can only be learned from them.  Upon ourselves they react only indirectly, through our imagination, which substitutes for our primary motives other, auxiliary motives, less stark and therefore more seemly.” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time


Marcel wanted to move this week, so I let him.  Retooling of the site to come.  Offers of technical expertise welcome!

I’m on page 436 of Swann in Love, and, I have to admit, for the last forty pages or so, I have been waiting for Swann to get over it.  Inside sources tell me this is not going to happen.  Too bad.  I suspect all will not end well for Swann.  Anyway, as I follow the complicated syntax of his obsessed logic,  I sometimes find my mind wandering, in some irritation at his willingness to spend so much mental energy creating the circumstances that lead to his own unhappiness.  “She’s not worth it!”, I want to shout at Swann. “Stop torturing yourself imagining all the men she might be with and go meet some people!”

But we all know that advice to the lovelorn goes unheard.  So to give myself a break from Swann’s anxious mind, I decide to follow some idle Proustian whims, 2012 style, on the internet.  A sampling:

  1. La Belle Epoque in France is considered the period between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I.  That is, the time between when Marcel Proust was born (1871) and when Swann’s Way was published (1913).  It was a transitional period (what period isn’t?) between a social structure based on the establishment of the aristocracy, and a rising middle class.  The Verdurins, and their “little clan” are a good illustration of this middle class and their social aspirations.
  2. There are lots of details in In Search of Lost Time that bring the period to life. But it helps if you know what Proust’s talking about.  For instance, what is a “Japanese Salad”?  I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, even with Google.
  3. Google was more helpful with “cattleyas”, which I learned are a kind of orchid.  Orchids were very popular during this period; Odette liked to wear them on her dress, and Swann liked to…well, you’ll just have to read it.
  4. Proust’s tastes were pretty modern.  He was a fan of Impressionism when many of his contemporaries thought Monet, Manet, Renoir and the lot were a bunch of no-talent degenerates.  They even had to have their own alternate art show, the Salon des Refuses.  If they were making art today, they would probably show it here.
  5. Another artist who exhibited at the Salons des Refuses was J.M. Whistler, whose tonal paintings of figures, skies and water often had titles inspired by music.  He was a favourite of Proust, and was thought to be the model for the character of Elstir.
  6. Marcel had modern taste in music too.  One of the most memorable passages from Swann’s Way is about a sonata by the composer Vinteuil.  You can practically hear it, as the narrator describes the piece phrase by phrase, and the effect the music has on Swann.  It’s hard to believe Proust made the whole thing up!  There’s lots of speculation about what music and composer he had in mind when he invented Vinteuil and his sonata.  An article here suggests the character may have been a composite of Gabriel Faure, Cesar Franck and Claude Debussy.
  7. The publication of Swann’s Way coincided with the premiere of another piece of modern music, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the first time on May 29 1913.
  8. In Search of Lost Time is considered by scholars to be the first “modern” novel.  Proust’s “stream of consciousness” style influenced many writers, most notably James Joyce, whose Ulysses was  published in 1922, and Virginia Woolf, who published Mrs. Dalloway in 1922 and To the Lighthouse in 1925, and famously said of In Search of Lost Time, “what remains to be written after that?”
  9. Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are linked in another way that modern writers may relate to, namely, self publishing.  After Swann’s Way was rejected by several publishers, Proust himself paid to have it published.  And most of Woolf’s novels were published through Hogarth Press, the business founded by Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf.  Hogarth Press published other notable modern works too, including The Waste Land and The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.
  10. It occurs to me that the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way is coming up next year.  Marcel Proust’s birthday is July 10, which is a nice time of year for a party.  Better start planning…